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ELECTORAL COUPS: A rough guide to winning elections in Kenya

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The Supreme Court’s courageous act of annulling Kenya’s August 8, 2017 presidential election seems to have plunged Kenya into a deep political crisis, especially after the withdrawal of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka from the October 26 re-run. However, if the court’s decision compounded Kenya’s political crisis, it was not so much because it radically departed from Africa’s well-thumped jurisprudence on presidential election disputes. Rather, it was because the court inadvertently saddled Kenyans with an electoral coup — something that neither a resolute and courageous court nor a beleaguered and isolated opposition could contain, singly or jointly.

The Supreme Court judges and a renegade commissioner blew the cover off the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The strategically located co-conspirators within the IEBC were identified and named, but unashamedly stayed put. The IEBC threatened to revert to its factory settings.

Ominous indicators

The Supreme Court expected nothing but a fresh election held in strict accordance with the constitution and the law. However, barring a last-minute court intervention out of the many cases now before the judges of High Court and the Supreme Court, Kenya looked set for a coup.

Several ominous indicators pointed to the possibility of a coup: Externally, the contested presidential election re-run on 26 October was notably and explicitly endorsed by the United Nations, the African Election Observer Group, and the US-led “international community”, which downplayed fears expressed by the IEBC’s commissioner Roselyne Akombe and its chairman Wafula Chebukati that the IEBC, as currently constituted, could not hold a credible election. These officials told the world that the IEBC was compromised and was held captive by four commissioners, some members of staff and the Chief Executive Officer, who opposed the chairman’s proposed reforms.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander. The subliminal message of this militant posturing was not lost on the Kenyan public.

In a show of military might, the government sent the paramilitary and police mostly to opposition strongholds of Western Kenya, Coast, Nairobi and parts of the Rift Valley. There were also reports of militia groups allied to the Jubilee party taking a new form of Nthenge oaths in Nairobi’s Lucky Summer estate to the chants of “thaiya thai thai”.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander.

On its part, the opposition withdrew from the presidential election and vowed that there would be no election on 26 October. It violently disrupted IEBC preparations for the new election in the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu. It remained intransigent, bloodied but unbowed, mobilised and charged, but isolated internationally.

The counter-coup

The C-word (coup) has been used by some Kenyans to define the significance of the 1 September 2017 Supreme Court verdict nullifying the 8 August election. None other than Uhuru Kenyatta, the would-be principal beneficiary of the IEBC’s “illegalities and irregularities”, rattled and rankled by the court’s decision, called the court’s verdict a judicial coup. He was echoing the dissenting Supreme Court judge Njoki Ndungu’s verdict in which she cast aspersions on the integrity of the majority of her fellow Supreme Court judges and of the judicial process that led to the nullification of the election.

However, Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup is a non-starter. It lacks the watermarks of one. There is no credible evidence that by annulling the presidential results the majority in the Supreme Court bench acted in haste, exercised their powers in an extra-constitutional or illegal manner, or declared an underserving candidate the winner of the 2017 presidential election – all backed by the threat or use of violence, against anyone and everyone resisting such a plot.

Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup, therefore, served to divert attention from what truly imperils Kenya’s democracy: electoral coups.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state.

But before we get to that point, we must ask whether the concept of a coup hold the key to understanding the complexity of Kenya’s electoral politics at this juncture? Technically no, because in a classic coup d’état, the state is overthrown (usually through the use of violence) by a rebel or military group. In this case, it was the state that engineered a coup to subvert or overthrow state institutions, particularly the electoral commission. So if the Supreme Court ruling was a judicial coup, then the 26 October election could be described as an electoral coup, or a counter-coup that sought to defy or invalidate the Supreme Court decision.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state. All coups succeed or fail to the extent that they are able to create and sustain a perception of victory once they have seized a strategic locus of state power.

The coup plotters deploy threat or use of violence against those who may resist them, and carefully identify their friends as well as their enemies and opponents whose capacity for resistance must be sabotaged or neutered sequentially or simultaneously. Some of these enemies must be targeted through a long-term process, but others must be taken by surprise on the day of the coup.

Electoral coups also adopt military warfare techniques, such as the use of psychological operation tactics (pys-ops) and the use of civic spaces of democracy, such as Kenya’s oligopolistic “mainstream” media, PR agencies and social media. These tactics are used to create and sustain a perception of the incumbent’s inevitable victory or invincibility, to fan and exploit citizens’ fear of political violence, to intimidate the opposition, to sustain a façade of the independence of the electoral commission, and to dominate the framing of the political contest and narratives of victory and loss. Electoral coups can be bloody or bloodless.

Kenya’s experience in its last three elections suggests that electoral coups are made up of these elements and more. The preferred locus of execution of these coups has been the electoral management body, the Supreme Court, or both. It usually harangues the opposition to go to court, not for justice, but as means of obtaining judicial imprimatur for its politically cathartic and legitimating value.

Military coups

Pictures of army tanks rolling down the city’s main street, soldiers in military fatigues with belts of bullets strapped across their chests patrolling the streets or standing guard around iconic public buildings within a capital city, the seizure and control of the state-owned national radio and television station by these forces, the continuous broadcasting of political martial music and “revolutionary” messages by “a redemption council” or “a revolutionary council” – these images are usually associated with military coup d’états, which generally set an organised army unit or units against the rest of the armed forces and society, which they dominate both by the threat or use of force, superior organisational ability, weaponry and the capacity to outlast any resistance.

In a paper published by the Albert Einstein Institution, Gene Sharp and Bruce Jenkins define a coup as “a rapid seizure of physical and political control of the state apparatuses by illegal action of a conspiratorial group backed by the threat or use of violence.” This speaks to the surprise, speed, means and the immediate strategic targets of coup makers.

However, there is more to the making of military or other types of coups. A military coup d’état is typically the ultimate pitched battle, asymmetrical warfare between the coup plotters who command an army or units of armed formations, on the one hand, and the armed formations of the state that are not party to the plot, on the other. The state could or could not be aided in its resistance to this power grab by civic institutions and unarmed but organised political groups, as well as rag-tag militia.

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system.

Coups are executed with speed, but take a long time to plan. They involve the identification, infiltration and control of strategic loci of state power. Usually, coup makers recruit key persons in charge of critical functions at strategic loci of state power, people whose simultaneous or separate but sequential acts, under the instruction of the coup plotters, enable the coup makers to take control of a strategic centre of state power, and use that to take control of the rest of the state machinery and to impose their rule on a people.

Coups in competitive authoritarian regimes

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system. Their politics is asymmetrical warfare, neither wholly determined by brute force (by the state security apparatus, state-sanctioned militia or opposition sanctioned militia) nor by civic actions, but by a mix of both, especially during general elections. Courts play an important role in recalibrating the balance of forces in this warfare.

Although military tanks on the streets of a capital city represent the dominant image of a coup d’état, there can be many other types of coups, defined by the locus of their execution, as there are centrally located levers of state power in a competitive authoritarian regime. The conspirators can seize these strategically-placed levers of state power and use them to control the rest of the state machinery.

In a competitive authoritarian regime such as Kenya, it is these loci of power – defined by highly centralised bureaucratic structures and decision making in the hands of a few – that are the prized targets of coup makers. The IEBC’s national tallying centre and the Supreme Court of Kenya fall into this category.

Elections are a perilous moment for such regimes. They present the ruling party with a dilemma: how to stage electoral contests that do not threaten the status quo but lend the regime a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Such democratic charades have great purchasing power among the self-declared “international community” (Western powers), especially in a world where political stability, as opposed to democratic niceties, is gaining currency.

Elections are anxious moments because they are a time when state power rests and shifts from one temporary locus to the other – from the substantive holder of the office of the presidency to the electoral commission or the judiciary. The electoral commission or the judiciary act as temporary custodians of state power, with enormous fiduciary powers. As the interim custodians of both state power and the people’s will, the chairman of the electoral commission or Supreme Court judges, acting singly or jointly, can declare any presidential candidate a winner according or contrary to the democratic will of the voters, the constitution and electoral laws.

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election.

What’s more, an electoral moment throws up multiple strategic vulnerabilities: the counting, tallying and declaration of election results and the resolution of any dispute arising from such an exercise. Any of these loci of state power can be seized and used to acquire the rest of the state machinery. Or a combination of all these points can be captured and used to acquire the rest.

Kenya’s electoral coups

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election. These coups are executed through a process of infiltration, seizure and control of the electoral management body to produce preferred outcomes and through the use of a cross-section of state security to put down any resistance.

Since 2007, Kenya has experienced this form of power grab, partly made possible by the electoral management body’s acts of “human error, fatigue, and technological failure” – which always happen only in favour of the incumbent or the incumbent’s preferred candidates – and by the cynical invocation or use of the judicial system to legitimise such a power grab.

The 2007 Kibaki coup

Mwai Kibaki’s 2007 power grab surprised many, not least the Kriegler Commission, which noted the strange circumstances surrounding the final announcement of the results of the presidential election and the low-key swearing-in ceremony at State House on the evening of 30 December 2007, a day before the official expiry of Kibaki’s first term in office.

Protracted political stalemate at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the national tallying centre, could have spilled over into a crisis of legitimacy for the incumbent, denying Kibaki the strategic advantage of bargaining with his opponent from an advantaged position as the commander-in-chief of the all the armed forces who could exercise the full powers of the office of the president.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance.

Many Kenyans were surprised by the sight of the “Ninja turtles” that descended on the KICC just before the results were announced. These police officers – dubbed “Ninja turtles” by Kenyans because of their striking resemblance to the fictional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon characters – are mostly from the Rapid Deployment Unit of the Administration Police, the police unit that is under the command of the Minister of Internal Security and which had grown spectacularly in strength, capability and numbers during the Kibaki regime.

The political significance of the chaos at KICC – with the chairman of the electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, literally under siege – the hasty swearing-in of Kibaki at dusk and the growth in numbers and strength of a civilian-commanded police force under a regime that ostensibly upheld citizens’ right to protest and picket was not lost on the majority of Kenyans.

Similarly, the political significance of the lack of preparedness of all the armed forces, except the military, and the lack of co-ordination among security chiefs at various levels (district, provincial and national) was not lost on the Waki Commission that was set up to look into the violence that erupted after that disputed election.

These acts, coupled with the cordoning off of the KICC by the General Service Unit (GSU), the revelation that the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been infiltrated by the National Intelligence Service and rogue returning officers, and the opaque system of counting and tallying results at the KICC, suggested a coup plot via the electoral locus.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance. It deployed police around the main entrances and exits of urban slums, cordoned off public spaces, such as Uhuru Park, for months on end and restricted public broadcasts to weaken the opposition’s ability to organise or mobilise protests against the regime.

The successful execution of a coup requires the active participation of some armed formations that have the capability to repress any anticipated forms of armed or civilian resistance. It also requires “neutral” or “professional” police and military forces – an unprepared police force, security committees that didn’t meet, and a prepared but professional army, which maintains its neutrality while the coup plot unfolds. Such a coup can gain legitimacy through the tacit or explicit approval of the international community, particularly countries whose military bases are located in Kenya, the UN headquarters in Nairobi, and strategic countries that Kenya relies on for military support.

Simply put, a Kibaki-style coup plot succeeds when it faces no credible or active internal threat from any other armed formation, except the unarmed civilian mobs of protestors or gangs armed with bows and arrows, who can easily be contained by the police and the paramilitary under the guise of maintaining law and order.

Kenya’s first successful electoral coup in 2007 was bloody. But if the securocrats and the Kibaki-aligned political elite hewed Kenya’s body politic “like a carcass fit for the hounds,” in 2007, then in 2013 they “carved it as a dish fit for the gods” with peace campaigns and “accept and move on,” messages.

How the Kibaki coup was executed and the resistance against it has informed the subsequent attempts. Though successful, Kibaki’s 2007 seizure of state power was seen to have had several weaknesses, which cost him the complete control of state power (a “nusu mkate” coalition government) and endangered real or perceived Kibaki supporters in opposition strongholds, especially in the Rift Valley. The resistance against it, nationally and internationally, nearly consumed the regime’s success.

Importantly, Kibaki’s plot had failed to create a perception of victory. His Party of National Unity’s campaign was seen as lethargic and as lacking an effective communication strategy: it failed to manage public perception (opinion polls) and to trumpet Kibaki’s economic achievements. Even its successful attempts to rope in top editors who authored “Save Our Country’ headlines was seen as a little too late.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Similarly, its diplomacy was wanting and no match for the diplomatic charm offensive of some of Kenya’s astute human rights and democracy activists who had contacts in high places in the West. It strengthened the opposition, the pro-democracy forces and the reform agenda against the regime. Importantly, it allowed too many concessions, especially the enactment of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The 2013 digital coup

The evil genius of the Jubilee party’s 2013 electoral coup was to turn Kibaki’s coup on its head: rewrite the old military coup d’état manual and distill out of it evil lessons with which to subvert Kenya’s democratic processes and institutions.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Critical media coverage was disarmed through peace journalism. Media coverage critical of the IEBC was equated with inciting political violence. Claims by the opposition, which deserved a critical look, were brushed aside as acts of incitement. Jubilee ran a glitzy and energetic campaign. Its victory was prophesised by the talk of a “tyranny of numbers” that assured a win for the UhuRuto alliance.

 In 2013, the locus of the electoral machinery was relocated to the Bomas of Kenya (a rondavel-like auditorium that was created to host cultural events), away from Nairobi central business district and an easy location to secure. The election was choreographed as a national cultural event or a public holiday that culminates in the appearance and address by the president. Choirs sang to soothe the anxieties of a nation still smarting from the trauma of the 2007 general election, anxiously awaiting the announcement of the winner, while the electoral body’s commissioners, like members of a cultural troupe, took turns to announce the results.

Yet something was amiss. The biometric voter identification and electronic transmission of results failed. The numbers being beamed on the screen were not adding up; they were not even divisible by a factor that Isaak Hassan, the then chairman of the commission, said was the multiplier. Rejected votes seemed to have been the unnamed candidate in the race. There was no way to verify that the numbers presented by the IEBC truly reflected the will of Kenyan voters.

The result was strategically announced in the middle of the night to give security forces ample time to plan for any form of resistance. As many as 150,000 officers from different armed formations (Kenya Police, GSU, Prisons, Kenya Wildlife) had been mobilised, trained and deployed to secure the 2013 election, though this was not made public.

The coup de grace was delivered through a pys-op that at once painted Raila Odinga as the personification of political violence and harangued him to accept the results of the presidential election, and if he was dissatisfied, to seek judicial redress.

Aggrieved by the results, the Raila-led opposition went to court. The newness of the Supreme Court, the refreshing leadership of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a well-known human rights defender, and the court’s new olive green and yellow striped robes and no-wigs-or-bibs attire inspired confidence. However, the judges unanimously disallowed the bulk of the evidence the opposition had hoped would prove its case, citing constitutional time constraints.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

The Supreme Court’s own self-initiated process of examining the records of the IEBC failed the integrity test. The court let the IEBC off the hook.

Kenyans had to wait for the 2017 new-look Supreme Court bench to get a glimpse into how the bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice by the IEBC secretariat works to produce winners of presidential elections, and to get a sense of what goes on within secured spaces, away from the public glare, where IEBC clerks verify and tally the results of various polling stations.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

August 2017: Robbery with violence

This year’s script was an amalgam of the 2013 and the 2007 experiences. Several reform processes and anxieties around insecurity during elections provided a perfect cover. The locus of the execution of the coup was the IEBC, buoyed by the mantra that no court in Africa has ever nullified a presidential election.

The 8 August 2017 election was preceded by a number of preemptive strategies and strikes, variously aimed at pro-democracy non-governmental organisations and foundations associated with key opposition figures with the aim of incapacitating resistance against the regime. The NGO Coordination Board’s attempts to close down the accounts of the Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation, the Kidero Foundation, and a foundation associated with Rosemary Odinga, Raila’s daughter, fall into this category. Libel laws enacted by the Jubilee government and the creation of a central government advertisement agency also came in handy when manipulating Kenya’s oligopolistic main-street media.

Resistance to an electoral coup was largely expected to rise from the core of Raila Odinga’s constituency and a few human rights and democracy non-governmental organisations. Jubilee went for both with speed once the result had been declared: indiscriminate state violence and attempts to close AFRICOG and the Kenya Human Rights Commission fall into this pattern.

How Jubilee executed this year’s scheme is a classic study on how a coup strategy was interwoven into Kenya’s electoral process and performed through routine acts of government functions, using the very institutions democracy depends on, without rousing suspicion among the citizens. A look at its key aspects demonstrates how an electoral coup works.

The Jubilee campaign, like the one in 2013, was energetic and glitzy. It was largely amplified by the President’s Delivery Unit’s advertisements: “GoK Delivers”; “+254 Tuko na Plus Kibao”; advertisements that claimed that Kenya had registered exceptional achievements in many fields, such as provision of “free” maternity services amidst a protracted strike by health workers. Jubilee made several campaign forays into what were considered swing constituencies or loose pro-opposition strongholds in Kisii, Bugoma, Kajiado and other areas.

If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Regime-aligned intellectuals, like Misigo Amatsimbi, writing two days before the poll, predicted Jubilee’s victory, complete with the numbers and the expected ethnic shifts in voting patterns. These numbers, expressed in percentage form, bear an uncanny resemblance to the figures IEBC would later disown in court, and variously call “data, provisional text data or statistics”.

Narratives of Jubilee’s victory, mostly by analysts who had simply ignored the confounding figures IEBC was beaming through the public portal, used “data” from secondary sources, used only form 34B, or relied on the incomplete records of the polling station results, the form 34A.

Vowing that Kenya’s presidential election was nothing but an ethnic census, where issues count for little, Misigo used the last census figures to approximate the number of votes that either Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta would get at varied levels of voter turnout among various Kenyan ethnic groups. In this analysis, Jubilee recorded a remarkable improved performance among the following ethnic groups: Somali, Samburu, Borana, Luhya, Maasai, Kamba and Kisii. Amatsimbi predicted 10.6 million votes (54%) in Uhuru’s first round win against Raila Odinga’s 8.8 million votes (44%). Misigo’s narrative and numbers don’t just add up.

Charles Hornsby had a similar prediction, which was based on a more sophisticated model that was gleefully rehashed by Bitange Ndemo, another regime intellectual, but which curiously sought validation in the hard-to-vouch form 34B after the declaration of the results.

Nor does “the Jubilee inroads into the opposition stronghold” narrative hold water. If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Infiltration and control of the commission

These numbers served an important role. They conditioned Kenyans to accept a Jubilee victory as something that had been scientifically foretold. They also enabled the narratives of certain victory, which gained currency immediately after the IEBC announced the results.

However, it is now clear that no one, not even the IEBC, could vouch for them. What is more, it is now clear how bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance account for what was previously excused as “human error, fatigue and technological failure,” and how these acts produce presidential victory.

Wafula Chubukati, the chairman of the electoral commission, declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidential election without receiving results from a substantial number of polling stations. Why did Chebukati declare the results of the election prematurely when the law allowed a few more days for a thorough job? Why was he waffling, lost in procedure, before declaring the results of the August 8 presidential election?

The Supreme Court found that numerous election return papers, notably form 34 C for the declaration of presidential results, lacked the mandatory security features, which raised suspicions that they could be fake. Why did Ezra Chiloba, the CEO of the IEBC, repeatedly remind Kenyans that the results being beamed through the public portal were results from 288 out of 290 constituencies shortly before the results were declared, only for the IEBC to disown these results as “data, provisional text data, statistics”?

Chiloba also told the BBC that some data entry clerk created an email account in the chairman’s name without the chairman’s knowledge, and used it to conduct about 9,000 transactions in the electoral database. Chiloba’s only regret was that the account was not created under a different (institutional) name. He did not question the ethical issue it raised: Why were these transactions conducted without the knowledge of the chairman? What motive was behind this?

According to the IEBC, in the 8 August election, there were more than 11,000 polling stations that were out of reach of the network coverage of Kenya’s three mobile service providers. However, in the fresh election on 26 October, this number had reduced drastically to only 300. This reduced figure was not accompanied by any report that showed that the mobile phone companies had made massive investments to improve network coverage between the August election date and the election date in October.

IEBC’s conduct reeks of bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance. Chebukati and Akombe’s memos indicating that not everything was above board point to this. There can be no doubt that the IEBC is a compromised institution, infiltrated and controlled by those who control four of the now six commissioners. The devil is in the malicious detail of everyday bureaucratic decisions, procedures, rules and regulations. In the Maina Kiai versus the IEBC case, the Court of Appeal warned the IEBC against this kind of mischief. However, the IEBC’s defiance of court orders points to a compromised institution that enjoys the protection of the powers that be.

Hotspots talk

In the run-up to the August 8 election, claiming to have learnt from history, the Kenya Police, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the IEBC mapped, profiled and marked regions that they referred as hotspots. The state mobilised an unprecedented 180,000 officers from various armed formations, over 30 specialised armoured anti-protest vehicles and helicopters for rapid deployment. (Coup plots work best with a mixed force, capable of executing orders as given, but incapable of executing a countercoup.)

At first glance, the list of places labeled hotspots appeared inclusive, it contained both the incumbent’s and the opposition’s strongholds, areas that had experienced political violence in the past general elections. However, some state action told a different story. The police held protest control simulation only in Kisumu and Nairobi. Only Kisumu and Oyugis, both in the opposition stronghold, received body bags, ostensibly as part of first aid kits donated by an NGO. That’s a Kenyan first in the history of first aid.

The lopsided deployment of the armoured vehicles, body bags and rehearsals for protest control told a different story. It suggested a strategy informed by a predetermined electoral outcome, a contest with a known winner and loser, and predictably, where the results of the presidential election would either bring joy or disappointment.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

Hotspots talk was a camouflage. It provided a perfect cover for an armed repression of protests against the IEBC’s attempt to unconstitutionally and illegally make Uhuru Kenyatta the president of Kenya. Recent human rights reports now confirm that the police may have killed up to 67 people, mostly in opposition strongholds, and especially in urban slums.

Monopolising the narrative

If the violence of an electoral coup looks strikingly similar to that of a classic military coup, then how it monopolises communication in a pluralistic media landscape sets it apart from the latter. In a typical military coup in a state-owned media era, the seizure and control of the only broadcast house more or less guarantees the coup makers a monopoly over the most effective means of communication.

Kenya’s experience suggests that the electoral coup plotters used a markedly different approach to attain the same results. The idea was not so much to seize a broadcast house as it was to dominate the narrative on the critical aspects of the electoral process. This was achieved through various approaches, including intimidation of media houses, ordering broadcasting stations to not announce unofficial presidential results, imposing a reliance on the IEBC “public portal” (the pot of statistics and provisional text data, which the commission itself disowned), and investment in heavily PR-mediated news reporting and analysis.

PR spins

The PR spin on the results was remarkable. As Wandia Njoya pointed out, in reporting the results, the burden of proof was put on the opposition to “substantiate the claims”, not on the IEBC, the principal author of the confounding statistics, to explain the anomalies and irregularities, the processes, and the missing polling station data (forms 34A). Any coverage that deflected attention away from the IEBC was welcome. Favourable observer reports were amplified, while those critical of the process were suppressed.

The Cabinet Secretary in charge of communication and the government’s communication authority repeatedly warned Kenya’s “main-street” media against broadcasting unofficial results and threatened sanctions on any media house that would dare to broadcast them. These directives of questionable legal basis had one effect: they allowed the government to control the narratives on the election. Moreover, the government raided the opposition parallel vote-tallying center in Nairobi. This was an attempt to neutralise any competing source of information and make the citizenry dependent on the only one source of information, the one controlled by the compromised electoral commission.

Rollback of reforms

Whether or not the Supreme Court upheld or annulled the results of the August 8 presidential election, Kenya’s democracy was damned either way. The judicial coup would inevitably be followed by an electoral counter-coup.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The Court exposed the Jubilee government’s attempt to rewrite the Kibaki plot, whose ambition included the control of all centres of power that check the presidency. Momentarily, the court had wrong-footed a well laid-out coup plot whose full scope will, hopefully, become clearer once the unprecedented 300 election petitions filed against various candidates in the just concluded general election, especially those from the “inroad” constituencies, are determined.

A weird reversal of aspirations seems afoot. The government has created an incumbent-friendly electoral commission. It only awaits presidential ascent or tweaking to take care of any contingency, for example, the resignation of its chairman. If this becomes law, it will institutionalise all the IEBC’s bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice that led to the annulment of the August 8 presidential election.

By Akoko Akech
Akoko Akech, presently a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, was the program officer in charge of the Society for International Development (SID-East Africa) and Institute for Development Studies’ book project, Karuti Kanyinga and Duncan Okello (eds.,) Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transition: Kenya’s 2007 General Election, and the Working Paper Series on the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.  

Akoko Akech, presently a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, was the program officer in charge of the Society for International Development (SID-East Africa) and Institute for Development Studies’ book project, Karuti Kanyinga and Duncan Okello (eds.,) Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transition: Kenya’s 2007 General Election, and the Working Paper Series on the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.  

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THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children 

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THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children

The highly hyped youngest country in the world has aged so fast that it now lies on the region’s sick bed in the hope that the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which convened on February 5th 2018, will salvage something from its nearly five years of civil war. “Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?” a passer-by asked in astonishment. The truth is that for historic reasons South Sudan does not fit comfortably where it situates politically, economically and diplomatically as a sovereign nation.

“History does not repeat itself”, was Marx’s repudiation of Hegel’s metaphysics: “It occurs as a tragedy, and then a farce.” The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) successfully midwifed the (1994-2005) peace talks that led to the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA provided the people of southern Sudan the inalienable right to self-determination. When the time for a referendum came on 9 January 2011, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly (98.3%) for independence and the Republic of South Sudan was born on 9 July 2011. That was the tragedy. Who could imagine that a country that was barely three years-old and that was emerging from twenty-one years of a devastating war of national liberation could get embroiled in another war?

The roots of the civil war locate in the internal political contradictions in the SPLM, which is linked to the failure of the SPLM leaders to address the fundamental issues of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of the people that underpinned the war of national liberation. This is reflected in the abject poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition prevalent in the new nation, which submerge their consciousness and prevents them from correctly gauging their reality.

“Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?”

The reasons for South Sudan’s failure are simple: The SPLM leaders spearheaded the war of national liberation without an ideology; they never envisaged or envisioned the state and society they desired and hence lack – or could not marry – the theory and practice of liberation. Moreover, their refusal to politically educate and organise their people entrenched an ethnic-based ideology that expunged progressive thinking among the combatants and the masses of the people. The absence of democratic institutions and instruments of power resulted in the personification, rather than the institutionalisation, of the SPLM’s authority. The linkage between state power and ethnic hubris rolled into an explosive alloy driving the ethnicised power politics.

The internal SPLM contradictions were nothing more than a power struggle within its top echelon. This had been the cause of its splits and internecine fighting since the SPLA/M inception in 1983. These contradictions were not ideological but political in character, revolving around personalities rather than issues. Sometimes they permeated into ethnic and provincial domains where they became violent and susceptible to exploitation by the common enemy feeding into its proxy wars of counterinsurgency.

The death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM Chairman, the SPLA Commander-in- Chief, the first Vice President of the Republic of the Sudan and the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, in a tragic helicopter crash on 30 July 2005 deprived the SPLM and the people of southern Sudan of a moderate voice that could prevent the escalation of internal feuds. The new leadership of South Sudan, comprising two incompatible and uncompromising leaders, quickly sent the people of South Sudan into war. This erupted on 15 December 2013 and continues unabated except for a break following the IGAD-mediated peace agreement on resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015.

What is the problem?

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. This could not be much further from the reality. Although, the two leaders indeed are factors at the secondary and tertiary levels of the contradiction, the fundamental contradiction underpinning the war in South Sudan is the centuries’ old condition of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of its people. Failure to address that fundamental contradiction was the driver of the southern Sudan people’s struggle against the different regimes that came and went in Khartoum since Sudan’s independence in 1956, including the war of national liberation spearheaded by the SPLM/A.

The independence of South Sudan did not change the nature of the contradiction, particularly following the paradigm shift the SPLM leadership undertook from revolution to right-wing neoliberalism in the dying days of the Cold War and the superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa. The shift transformed the SPLM leaders into an elitist class completely alienated from the masses of the people. This facilitated and accelerated the consummation of the liberal peace agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum in 2005, giving the SPLM full control of the subnational entity known as the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The SPLM leaders had no programme or strategy for managing the unfamiliar ground the CPA lobbed them onto i.e. to run the government and the state.

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon.

GoSS had an annual budget of between five and six billion US dollars from its share of the oil revenues. However, the SPLM, the dominant and leading political party in GoSS, did not have a programme for addressing the social and economic development of South Sudan. The political, military and burgeoning commercial/business elite that evolved in the context of the war economy plaited into a parasitic capitalist class; parasitic in that it did not command any means of production but derived its wealth consequent to its control of the state and its resources through the agency of corruption and outright theft from state coffers. Instead of providing development and social services, the members of this class dolled themselves in self-aggrandisement that they christened ‘payback time’ in a political patronage system suggesting that the war of national liberation was about nothing but rent-seeking.

The SPLM leaders jettisoned the liberation era pledge to construct a society based on freedom, justice, fraternity and prosperity for all. Thus, corruption, tribalism, nepotism, impunity, insecurity and ethnic conflicts were the characteristic features of the interim period between 9 January 2005 and 9 July 2011 and only the general and genuine desire by the people for the successful implementation of the referendum on self-determination constituted the constraint that prevented an all-out eruption of violence. The political environment was tense and gearing towards a totalitarian dictatorship as President Salva Kiir erected oppressive tools in the SPLM system, exploiting people’s patience as they waited to vote for independence.

A provision in the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (ICSS, 2005) stated that should the result of the referendum be in favour of independence, the ICSS would become the transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, with amendments relevant to the changed status of South Sudan. Instead of following that provision, President Kiir ordered for the crafting of a completely new constitution that gave him excessive powers, making him an imperial president. Thus, South Sudan became independent on an undemocratic and oppressive transitional constitution in which power was concentrated in the presidency. President Kiir particularly liked the provision that he could fire his deputy, which was done specifically with the incumbent, Machar, in mind. The transitional constitution eroded all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the interim constitution. This marked the beginning of South Sudan’s political troubles.

This development coincided with the upsurge of Dinka (Jieng) ethnic nationalism, with its ideology of hegemony and domination. The Dinka is the single largest nationality in South Sudan. The formation of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) – representing the social, economic and political interests of the Dinka people – as a power broker around Kiir’s presidency was part of engineering a totalitarian political dispensation in the young republic. President Kiir used his executive powers in the JCE to paralyse the political functions of the SPLM, shifting power from the SPLM General-Secretariat through the office of the president (OP) to the JCE, which now evolved into a quasi-state institution.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty. The South Sudan Pound lost value against foreign currencies from 2.5 to the US dollar in 2011 to 250 in 2018. The negative social and economic indices inspired political protests, demonstrations and opposition to the regime’s oppressive policies in different parts of South Sudan. This raised the political temperatures within the top leadership of the SPLM, fuelling the power struggle between President Kiir and Vice President Machar, which reached a crisis point in July 2013 when the President dismissed his deputy.

IGAD mediation

In an extraordinary assembly of IGAD Heads of State and Government in Nairobi on 27 December 2013, the region decided to intervene to resolve the conflict in South Sudan. Unfortunately, unlike its experience of mediating the conflict between the Sudan and the SPLM, which ushered in the CPA, the region this time round shot itself in the foot. The four countries involved in the mediation (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Sudan) each had their respective national economic, security and political interests in South Sudan. Uganda had the UPDF and Air Forces involved in the war on the side of Kiir’s government. Sudan had its SPLM/A–North and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels operating from South Sudan with the support of Uganda. The Sudan also had its commercial interests as oil from South Sudan still transits through the Sudan to international markets.

The respective security, economic and political interests of these countries created an environment of competition among them and therefore interfered in their collective efforts to resolve the conflict. The regional mediation of the South Sudan conflict was flawed in many aspects. The negotiation modality involved many stakeholders on the principle of inclusivity when only two parties, namely the SPLM in government and the SPLM/A in the opposition, were fighting the war. The mediation advanced the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) before sealing the agreement. This introduced the issue of power sharing, which was like placing the cart before the horse. After sixteen months of intermittent negotiation, there was an Agreement on the Resolution of Crisis in South Sudan (ARCISS), which the SPLM/A (IO) and other parties signed on 17 August, and which Salva Kiir reluctantly signed on 26 August.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty.

The agreement provided for power sharing between the SPLM in government (Kiir, 53%), the SPLM/A in the opposition (Machar, 33%), the SPLM political leaders or individual arrested and detained in the wake of the violence on 15 December 2013 (7%) and the other 18 registered political parties (7%). It took eight months before the parties started implementing the peace agreement. This was partly due to the government’s reluctance and intransigence and partly due to the weakness demonstrated by the mediators, the peace guarantors and the international community to bring pressure to bear on President Kiir to enable the operationalisation of ARCISS instruments. The body formed to oversee and supervise the implementation, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) chaired by former Botswana President Festus Mogae, proved ineffective in the face of procrastination, bullying and outright defiance by government functionaries. The transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) was formed on 29 April 2016 before the amended constitution incorporating ARCISS was promulgated, rendering it difficult to operationalise.

In addition to the difficulties President Kiir erected to frustrate TGoNU functions, a rebellion was brewing in Dr. Machar’s party. Taban Deng Gai, who was the SPLM/A (IO)’s chief negotiator, was not pleased that Riek Machar had denied him the petroleum portfolio in the TGoNU. He shifted allegiance to President Kiir in a conspiracy that triggered the fighting in the presidential palace on 8 July 2016, rekindling the war and precipitating the collapse of the TGoNU as well as the ARCISS. President Kiir later appointed Taban Deng Gai as the first vice president in lieu of Dr. Machar. This was a flagrant violation of ARCISS.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a visit to Nairobi later in the month, forced the IGAD Council of Ministers to recognise the de facto new situation in South Sudan. The United States had played a pivotal role in the consummation of the CPA and in the conducting of the referendum on self-determination that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. The region therefore could not effectively intervene to stop the deteriorating humanitarian situation caused by the escalation of the war, which now engulfed the hitherto peaceful areas in Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal consequent to the emergence and proliferation of armed opposition groups. This situation continued until finally in June 2017, the JMEC Chair, Mr. Festus Mogae, finally admitted that ARCISS was fatally disabled and required revitalisation.

Revitalisation of ARCISS

The intricacy of diplomacy renders difficult the interpretation and operationalisation of certain terminologies. In the current context of South Sudan, “the revitalisation of ARCISS” is meaningless as it is not be feasible without Dr. Machar, who has been holed up in South Africa since November 2016 on the advice of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Since the 30-month ARCISS transition period is almost expiring, the IGAD mediators should have started a new peace process involving the newly formed political and armed opposition groups. However, IGAD proceeded with their plan to consult and draw an agenda for the revitalisation of ARCISS. This agenda included a meeting in December 2017 to recommit the parties to the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. The parties signed the agreement on 21 December, but it never came into force because the government started its dry season military offensive to regain the territories under the armed opposition in Equatoria and Jonglei. This caused further humanitarian crises, with people streaming into Ethiopia and Uganda to seek refuge.

The second phase of the revitalisation process commenced on 4 February 2018 and was expected to continue until 16 February. The objectives of this phase are: a) restore the permanent ceasefire; b) achieve full and inclusive implementation of ARCISS; and c) develop a revised and realistic timeline and implementation schedule towards democratic elections at the end of the transitional period.

These are unrealistic objectives. First, the government has demonstrated a complete lack of interest in sharing power with the opposition. Secondly, the mediators have failed to deploy the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force from Rwanda and Ethiopia that would have provided security for Juba and other major towns. Thirdly, the armed opposition, the SPLM/A (IO), provides no military threat to the government because of an undeclared arms embargo imposed on it and the incarceration of its leader in South Africa. Fourthly, the transitional period that ARCISS provided ends in May 2018, which is the beginning of the rainy season in South Sudan. Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo. It would not be possible to bring them back to partake in elections in such a short time. Fifthly, assuming that the high-level revitalisation forum ends in an agreement, a new transitional period must factor in reconciliation and must enable the repatriation and resettlement of refugees.

Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo.

The revitalisation process is therefore a tall order in terms of the commitment of the IGAD region, the African Union and other interested parties to enforce the implementation of the resultant agreement. It would also require walking the extra diplomatic and political mile to force President Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to accept the agreement and its implementation in the letter and spirit in which the parties negotiated and agreed to it.

The entire process reeks of liberal peacemaking. The usual shortcoming of liberal peacemaking is that it leaves the regime intact. The superficial reforms it provides rarely impact the character and essence of the regime and end up recreating the conditions for renewed conflict. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement between the May regime of Gaafar Nimeri and the South Sudan Liberation Movement of Joseph Lagu created the conditions for the formation of the SPLM/A and the war of national liberation (1983-2005). The CPA created the conditions for the ongoing wars in the Sudan and South Sudan. Other examples exist in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. Therefore, whatever agreement the interested parties may come up with, the people of South Sudan should receive it with caution.

What then is the solution to the conflict in South Sudan?

A national democratic revolution

The plethora of problems afflicting the people of South Sudan are typical of when a people emerge from a war of national liberation or from colonial bondage. These problems obtained, and even continued to multiply, in South Sudan because the SPLM leaders decided to construct and maintain neocolonial relations with global comprador capitalism in order to perpetuate the system of extraction and plunder of South Sudan’s natural resources. This has left the country bankrupt and in economic meltdown while the people have been pauperised.

The essence of the war of national liberation that the SPLM spearheaded was to develop and free the national productive forces from any kind of foreign interference and domination. In this context, the SPLM hitherto counted as one of the forces of national democratic revolution in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However, the socio-economic and political developments in South Sudan since 2005 have demonstrated that the SPLM leaders have jettisoned the liberation pledge they made in 1983 and abandoned the path to national democratic revolution.

Until we successfully carry out a national democratic revolution for the social, economic and political development of our people, these problems will endure. We have to complete the national democratic revolution by implementing its programme in the social, economic and political spheres. We must construct a national democratic state that emancipates our people from the poverty, ignorance, political and ideological illiteracy, and superstition, which if left alone, could pop up in different forms: ethnic chauvinism and bigotry; religious, gender and racial discrimination; nepotism and favouritism; electoral fraud; political exclusion; and economic marginalisation and exploitation. These could quickly become the drivers of future conflict.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms.

Notwithstanding their political weaknesses and lack or organisation, the forces of the national democratic revolution exist in South Sudan in social groups, civil society and community-based organisations, and in the political parties and armed opposition. Some of these are actively participating in daily social and economic struggles and some may be hibernating, waiting for the opportune time. The tools for national democratic revolution range from what already exists now in the form of waging a revolutionary armed struggle, to demonstrations and processions, sit-ins and civil disobedience in towns and cities. We tried these methods successfully before in the popular uprising against the first military government of Ibrahim Abboud and Jaafar Nimeiri’s totalitarian dictatorship in Sudan.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms. It is imperative to complete the national democratic revolution and the construction of the national democratic state to address social and economic development, as well as the secondary contradictions inherent in the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural multiplicities of South Sudan. This is necessary whether or not the IGAD-led revitalisation of ARCISS succeeds in forcing the parties – through diplomatic arm-twisting by development partners – to agree to a power-sharing timeline and some reforms in the system.

In conclusion, the people of South Sudan are in such a dire social, economic and humanitarian situation that there is no time to waste in sterile debates about power-sharing and reforms of a system that has become, as Dr. Garang used to say of the government in Khartoum, “too deformed to be reformed”. It is about time the patriotic democratic social and political forces pulled together to salvage the country and its people.

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BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

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BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

At a cybercafé somewhere in Nairobi’s South B estate, stone-faced male clients are glued to their computers. They are youthful, the type that ought to be attending college, or if they are working, should be at their respective work places. It is mid-morning on a weekday, the cybercafé’s computers are all occupied and the young men are not on the Internet doing research for a term paper, collecting data, compiling a literature review, or cleaning up their CVs; they are busy placing bets on football games that are being played thousands of kilometres away, mostly in European cities.

This cybercafé is a replica of the many cybercafés spread all over the city and in suburban areas that have been turned into betting sites. “Cybercafés are no longer the Internet places you knew where people came to download serious stuff, upload a government document or even watch porn,” said Moha, the cybercafé’s owner and himself a former betting addict. “With the introduction of online betting in Kenya, the cybercafé business was transformed and acquired a new model.”

In Rongai town in Kajiado County, 25 kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, college students and young professionals have turned to cybercafés to gamble in the football betting craze that has left many residents befuddled. “All of them are male and between the ages of 19 and 35 years,” said a cybercafé owner. “A young man who was working for an IT company left his job to bet full time.” In Kikuyu town, Kiambu County, many young men have been sucked into the betting craze. They spend all day holed up in cybercafés, betting on nondescript teams in faraway countries, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine. They pay KSh1,000 upfront to cybercafés daily to satiate their betting addiction.

“Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.

A recovering gambler, Moha was so compulsively addicted to betting that he would bet his cybercafé’s daily proceeds relentlessly and non-stop. Convinced that the following day would be better than the previous one, he would place his bet again and again. Again and again, he would lose: day after day, week after week, month after month. “Just when the business was now about to collapse, I woke up to my senses. I was lucky, I salvaged myself. It could have been worse,” said Moha. At the end of his betting mania, Moha had lost hundreds of thousands of shillings. “That money was never meant to be mine,” he consoled himself.

A full-time occupation

Moha’s cybercafé is decked with a smart 43-inch TV that beams the latest European leagues’ football matches live. I watched as young men worked their bets with the seriousness of college students sitting for an exam. “Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.

Njoroge is your archetypal Kenyan gambler: intelligent, male, young, urbane and computer savvy. He is a recent graduate of Technical University of Kenya. He finished his BSc in IT studies just last year and told me that he was in the process of looking for a job. But as he looks for a job, he said, he is hooked to betting. “I will not lie to you – I cannot stop betting because I have become an addict.” Njoroge has been betting since 2013, when he first entered university as a freshman. “But I will also congratulate myself, I have been able to tame my betting mania to now just once a week,” said Njoroge. “I bet every Friday and I have cupped my betting to no more than KSh3,000. That is the maximum that I can bet.”

I asked Njoroge what was the highest amount he had ever won during his four years of betting. “Twenty-one thousand,” he replied. “I don’t play huge bets. For me to have won the KSh21,000, I had placed a bet of KSh1,000.” Since then, he has been winning small amounts ranging from KSh3,000 to 6,000. Was it out of choice that he was betting small money? I asked him. “Not really. It is because I have never had a huge lump sum. If I did, trust me, I would play in the big league. The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the reward,” Njoroge reminded me.

“Although I am not able for now to stay away from betting, I consider myself a safe bet,” said Njoroge. “I have been betting at Moha’s cyber for a while now and I know all my fellow gamblers. I do not consider myself a serial gambler.” Njoroge told me of a banker who worked at Kenya Commercial Bank who bet every single day. “His online account always has a floating minimum of KSh10,000 for placing his bets. Many times he has lost huge amounts, but he seems to have a constant supply of money. He does not seem to worry about his losses.” Every morning at 7am, his banker betting friend passes by at the cybercafé and places his bet before leaving for work. In the evenings, before going home, he passes by again and places more bets. “I think betting is like a sickness,” mused Njoroge. “I look at the banking fellow and I cannot believe that he often bets to win only KSh1,000 on top of his minimum KSh10,000.”

“Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”

Anthropologist Natasha Schull says, “For gamblers, it is not always the sense of chance that is attractive, but the predictability of the game that underpins the escapism. Even winning disrupts this state of dissociation.”

Before releasing Njoroge to go back to his computer machine, I asked him whether he was genuinely worried that his addiction would (finally) get the better of him. “That is why I am seriously looking for a job. I am hoping once I get a job, I will quit betting.” It sounded more of a wish than an expectation.

“But once you get a job, won’t you start earning some good pay and that may induce you into placing bigger bets? I mean you will now have the bigger cash you been craving for?” I asked him. “Remember what you told me about the greater the odds, the higher the reward?” He paused, then said, “Let me go back.”

A sickness

“Betting is a sickness, a sickness that can only be cured by oneself,” said Simon Kinuthia, a recovered gambler, who once lived in East London and came back home in 2008. It is in East London that he first learned how to bet and eventually got hooked. “Betting and gambling joints are all over the city of London. They are like your local neighbourhood kiosks here in Nairobi.” As a restaurant supervisor in East London, Kinuthia would use his break to dash to the nearest betting kiosk to place a bet.” He been back in Kenya for nearly ten years now, and says he would bet even his house rent and would be perpetually broke and always in debt “because you must always borrow to feed your addiction. Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”

With his colleagues, Kinuthia would bet in the morning, at tea break, during the lunch hour, in the evenings and even at night. “When we got our weekly pay, we would all head to gambling joints and bet the whole night. We would lose all our money, possibly only one of us would win his bets,” said Kinuthia. Yet, that did not deter them. “The more you lose, the more you want to place even more bets, erroneously believing it was not your lucky night. It is a paradox.”

Kinuthia, who is an accountant by profession, told me that betting is a business based on the understanding of probabilities. “What is the probability of a gambler winning the jackpot?” posed Kinuthia. “It is one out of 10 million, assuming every day 10 million Kenyans are placing their bets. In other words, your chances of not winning the big money is 99.9 per cent.” Many of these people, Kinuthia said, have little or no understanding of the probability of losses.

Kinuthia has faithfully kept away from betting in Kenya. “I saw people (in the UK) lose jobs, others got into manic depression. Others who could not live with the shame of losing everything they ever owned – after being auctioned – and of having mounting debts, committed suicide. “Betting is like being a drug addict: People begin using drugs as a leisure activity in the false belief that they can quit anytime, if the leisure becomes boring, or if they find something better to do,” said Kinuthia. “But no sooner do you start dabbling in drugs, then you realise you want more and more of the same. It is no longer a leisure activity, but an addiction that has to be fed to keep it going. That is precisely how betting works, even on the most innocent people, who cheat themselves they are doing it for fun, and if not for fun, at least then to win some money. They soon realise they are hooked onto an alluring activity that is intoxicating, that like a drug gives them a kick, or if you, like ‘a shot in the arm.’”

Photocopy of newspaper

Photocopied newspaper page with “hot games” for betting.

Social anthropologists have long observed that gamblers use their bets to chase losses and often they seek to be in a world where they can forget their problems. I found this to be true of my newspaper vendor friend, who has spawned a business idea from the betting mania: selling photocopied newspaper pages with “hot games” for betting. At KSh20 per page, the vendor mainly sells the information to security guards, casual labourers, matatu drivers and conductors, street vegetable vendors and hawkers, job seekers, as well as jobless Kenyans. All of these people’s dream is to win the jackpot and merrily transform their “miserable” lives by becoming instant millionaires. It is a dream fed daily by the fantastic news that a peasant women from Kakamega County can actually win KSh25 million from placing her bet correctly.

This paradox – of losing hard-earned cash in a betting game and instead of quitting, you immerse yourself even further in the quagmire is something I found prevalent among university students. To understand how the betting mania has caught on among Kenyan youth, I went to the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus, where science and medical students are housed. It is a campus for “serious students” who are not even supposed to have time to socialise. But with the onset of online betting in Kenya, Chiromo campus students have not been spared the craze.

Victor Rago, who is studying chemistry, admitted to me that the betting mania has afflicted his campus and is driving many students crazy. “Today students spend more time betting than they do in their academics. If only they spent half the time they did in analysing football matches so as to place the correct bets, we would have very many first class honours.” Rago told me about his roommate, who in their second year in 2017, placed his bet one Saturday afternoon with Ksh200. As luck would have it, by the evening his roomie was worth KSh250,000 sent to his smart phone. “I knew he had ‘struck gold’, because when he came to the room, he said he wanted us to go into town and eat some real food at some real restaurant. He excitedly told me he had won 250K and it was proper for him to take some time and enjoy life. For a whole semester he did not show up in the lecture theatre.”

Rago said students were now spending all their energies dreaming every single day about betting and winning bigtime money. It has become a full-time occupation for them. Studies have become secondary. “Here at Chiromo, there are betting groups, just like there are tutorial groups, but the betting groups are superseding the tutorial groups by the day,” said Rago. I asked him why many of these betting groups are mostly composed of male students. “Male students are ardent football followers, which they have done for a long period, so they have a knack for better and greater analysis and I also suspect they are not averse to risks.”

But that does mean female students do not bet, said Rago. “They do, but they are not in the forefront. And, because they are not as adept analysts like their male counterparts, they rely on ‘seasoned analysts’ to predict for them.” Many of the so-called seasoned analysts run online advisory chats on Telegram applications. “They are also WhatsApp advisory chats, but many gamblers prefer the Telegram app,” said Rago. He said the Telegram app is preferred because your contact details are not exposed to everyone. Unlike WhatsApp, where, if you have to belong to a chat group, you must share your mobile phone number, the Telegram app is created such that it is controlled by a sole administrator and he or she does not need to know your telephone number to chat with his or her clients.

Professional predictors

“One of the biggest of these Telegram app online ‘professional predictors’ is called Binti Foota,” said Rago. Ostensibly targeted at females who do not have the time to analyse or follow football matches religiously, it has an accumulated a following of nearly 19,000 gamblers. “What the betting craze has done is to spawn another industry, which is feeding into the gambler’s addiction,” said Rago. “So, for KSh530 a fortnight, Binti Foota can help you predict the outcome of football games. If you pay her KSh1,030, the site can predict for you for 34 days.” Rago said many of the female students who bet make the bulk of Binti Foota chat followers. “Binti Foota’s identity is not known, neither does she have to know the identity of her clients. So, if you are dissatisfied with her analyses, what you can do is migrate to another prediction site, or bad mouth her on a different site,” said Rago.

Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.

The student told me these online “professional predictors” had been infiltrated by online scammers, who have been conning people of their money in the guise of helping them place winning bets. “Many of the so-called online analysts and professional predictors are just scammers preying on the gambler’s addiction.” Scammers from as far as Nigeria have opened Telegram chat groups that pronounce how they have helped people win hundreds of millions of shillings. And because people are predisposed to greed, they fall prey to such scams,” said Rago.

He added that because of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviour displayed by the student gamblers, most of these students tend to neglect their studies and suffer from pendulum-like mood swings that are unpredictable. Rago told me of the Kenyatta University second-year student who committed suicide last year. “The student bet all his tuition fees – KSh80,000. What he did was to place two bets: KSh40,000 each. The odds were high, but he took the risk, convinced he would at least win one gamble. When he lost both bets, his world came crumbling down.”

Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.

The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the rewards is a principle many gamblers abide by, hoping to cash in on the odds they have placed. Many times, the risk is not worth it, “but then”, said Rago, “gambling is a compulsive behaviour disorder that overtime grips gamblers, who like alcoholics, to cure their alcoholism, must first accept they are suffering from an alcohol problem. Gamblers must also come to terms with their odd behaviour that drives them to bet compulsively.”

A consultant periodontist described to me how self-destructive compulsive behaviour disorder can be. A part-time lecturer, he narrated to me how one of his best students pulled out of class in his third year. “Aaah daktari, this course is taking too long: my peers are making money out there and here I am slogging through an unending degree course,” the student replied when he asked him why he had decided to pull out of medical school. “To my consternation, I did not know he had been betting on the side,” the consultant said. “I was told that his friends were boasting to him that by the time he is finished with his medical degree, they would be owners of real estate and funky vehicles.” His friends apparently were full-time gamblers and some had shown him their bank slips.

The consultant said he should not have been overly surprised: some of the young doctors known as registrars have become master gamblers. “In between their clinical rounds in the hospitals, the physicians are glued to their smart phones busy betting, so much so that one would be inclined to think that betting is one of their examinable units.” But the most shocking revelation came when he learned that some parents were encouraging their children to bet, oblivious of the dangers they are getting their children into.

Sports betting

I met a senior-level manager at one of the better known sports gaming companies for a chat in their posh offices in Nairobi. If a company’s employees is an indication of who its clientele might be, this sports gaming company told it all: The employees I saw were young – hardly more than 33 years-old with a look that declared: “We are here, we have arrived”. “It is not true sports gaming companies are impacting negatively on the Kenyan society, much less its youth,” he ventured to tell me. “This is a wrong notion that is being perpetrated by the mainstream media. It has become all hype and no substance. What I want are facts and figures, not emotional lurid stories.” He reeled off from his head the statistics from a recent poll conducted last November to find out how Kenyan youth are spending their money. “The survey, GeoPoll, showed that 26 per cent of the youth spend their money on saving and expenditure and only five per cent spent their money on betting. Which youth is this that is being destroyed by betting? The Kenyan media is obsessed with sensational reporting,” said the manager.

Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.

The manager, who is not authorised to talk to the media, described betting as an entertainment and said people are entitled to some fun, some leisure, albeit in a controlled environment. “We operate under the rules and obligations of the Betting Control Licensing Board. We are therefore legitimate. What is destroying the youth is not sport gaming companies – on the contrary – it is the so-called amusement machines that are now found all the over the place, including villages in some far-off counties. Those machines are the problem: they are illegal, unregulated and accessed by all and sundry. Of course, most of them are used by pupils and students alike, who are yet to be of the adult age, that is above 18 years. That is what the government and the media should be concerned with and not licensed, legal betting companies,” pointed out the manager. The government should clamp down on these machines, not ask sports gaming companies to part with astronomical taxes – “it just does not make sense. We are a business, not a philanthropic company. The government is being unreasonable when it says sports gaming companies are making so much money, so they have to pay taxes that are pegged to their turnover. It never happens anywhere in the world.”

Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.

The manager said his company has a cap on the amount one can bet in a day: KSh20,000. “I should let you know, we are not reckless. We also do not want people to overstretch their enjoyment.” Sports gaming companies and casinos consider gambling a “victimless” recreation, and therefore, a matter of moral indifference.

The sports gaming companies are up in arms because the government has asked them to pay 35 per cent on their monthly turnover in taxes. “And do not forget we still have to pay the annual 30 per cent corporate tax. Some people are misadvising the government,” said the manager. This “misadvising” began last April, 2017, when Henry Rotich, the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 50 per cent tax on sports gaming companies when he presented the national budget. He also came up with the Finance Bill, which President Uhuru Kenyatta refused to sign, insisting sports gaming companies ought to pay the 50 per cent tax.

Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth.

When the matter was taken up by Parliament, it was shot down; parliamentarians rejected the 50 per cent tax idea and said that the tax should remain at 7.5 per cent. “Now we don’t know where this 35 per cent is coming from. There is a misconception about sport gaming companies in this country: That we make abnormal and humongous profits. The most profitable company in Kenya is Safaricom. I have not heard the government say, since Safaricom makes billions of shillings, they should pay higher taxes than what they are paying currently, because they happen to be making tonnes of money.”

I told the manager that my preliminary inquiries on the betting mania, especially among the youth, is that it is distracting them from productive activities, be it studies or work. I also told him that betting is unwittingly creating among the most productive cadre of Kenyans a false notion that gambling can be considered an economic activity.

“Kenya is not a theocracy and gambling has existed in independent Kenya for the last 50 years,” shot back the manager. “Where is all this hullabaloo about sports gaming companies coming from suddenly? I sense business envy here from some (powerful) quarters. Could be it that some people are sore because they cannot believe they missed an opportunity to make money?” The manager told me that a tycoon close to the powers that be fought one of the sports gaming companies when it started its operations, arguing that these companies were corrupting the morals of the youth. There are currently 25 sports gaming companies in Kenya, according to latest Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) statistics, which were compiled last year in June.

“The argument about morals is both laughable and superfluous,” said the manager. “What then should we say of alcohol? Shouldn’t the government then shut down all the bars and drinking dens to curb alcoholism? What about beer and liquor manufacturing companies? Shouldn’t the government tax them an arm and a leg because they encourage our youth to drink? Alcohol is not only harmful to their health, but also leads to anti-social behaviour.” The morality argument falls flat on its face, said the manager. “That is the province of the purveyors of heavenly realm. I have not heard them say betting will take the youth to hell or that they are engaged in a sinful activity. ”

The manager dispelled the notion that betting and gambling are reckless behaviour. “Life is about gambling. Did you know prayer is a gamble? Everyday people are offering prayers to God, which are not fulfilled. Yet, they continue praying and they will not stop. At least we fulfil part of our bargain by paying people for their gambles. I can tell you this without a shadow of a doubt, we are going to create millionaires like no industry has done in modern Kenya.”

Anecdotal evidence shows that online betting is impoverishing poor people and reducing their levels of productivity. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Director General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), recently observed: “:….you are seeing sports gambling in Kenya today, but nobody is telling the gambling firms not to accept money from poor gamblers. It is the poor who must be told that they will live with the consequences of dreaming that gambling is an investment.” It is a fact that gamblers are drawn disproportionately from the poor and the low-income classes, who can ill afford to gamble: they are susceptible to the lure of quick imagined riches. This class of people are in financial doldrums and other societal tribulations that make them vulnerable to fantastic dreams of sudden wealth.

A tax expert who did not want his name revealed said, “One of the sports gaming company’s act of sponsorship withdrawal can be interpreted as an act of industry intimidation. The company is taking advantage of the fact that there is no direct evidence attributing societal problems to its activities.” Sportpesa, one of the better known gaming companies, withdrew its sponsorship of 10 sporting entities in Kenya that it was supporting after the government asked all sports gaming companies to pay an upgraded tax of 35 percent.

The tax consultant pointed out that Chapter 12 of the Kenyan Constitution on public finance management requires the creation of a tax system that promotes an equitable society. “Translation: Sports gaming companies such as Sportpesa are obliged to engage in good management practices by not holding the country to ransom, and using scaremongering tactics and threats such as job losses, withdrawing to another country or jurisdiction.”

Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth. I thought of the young man Njoroge – smart and forward-looking – yet, gambling, a debased form of speculation, had reduced him to lusting for sudden wealth that is not linked to the process that produces goods or services. Through gambling he hopes to grow wealth without actually working for it.

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BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences

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BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences

During the early 1800s, the Nuer of South Sudan began pushing out of their traditional homeland and increased their territory four-fold at the expense of their Dinka and Anuak neighbours by the late 1880s. The anthropologist Raymond Kelley described it as one of most prominent cases of tribal imperialism in the ethnographic record. According to his analysis, the Nuer expansion, which involved the acquisition of resources far beyond that required to satisfy their normal material needs, was driven by the rising cost of bride price.

Today we are witnessing a variation on bride price inflation of a different order. The institution of marriage has given rise to a new economic growth sector in the form of the wedding industry. For example, the wedding industry is now estimated to be worth US$ 60 billion in the United States and over $300 Billion globally. The global figures probably do not include Africa, where the wedding industry is a newer but even faster growing phenomenon in many African nations.

An ancient institution

Marriage is the most ancient and stable of human institutions. Anthropologists trace the institution to the need to avoid incest and establish the paternity of offspring.

Stone Age humans formalised the contractual bonding of husband and wife through the exchange of gifts, and most hunter-gatherer societies engaged in ritual courtship. We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

It is not difficult to see how the institutionalised demands of maintaining a healthy gene pool could make a critical difference in circumstances where humans lived in small and isolated groups. Human bands invested in social networks and developed complex kinship systems, while the cavemen who mated by clubbing a woman and dragging her to his cave became dumb and dumber over time. In any event, marriage became a defining feature of human existence.

One scientific publication described the institution in evolutionary terms as “reciprocal exogamy including the exchange of mates, goods, and services, and involving multiple kin lineages often existing in multiple residential communities”. Anthropologists investigating the roots of the institution note that these parameters have remained relatively unchanged over the millennia.

With the rise of agriculture, marriage came to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, conferring new rights and responsibilities in the process. The celebrations accompanying marriage played a fundamental role in fostering communal identity and solidarity. Before long, marriage was also key factor in building political relationships—a function that was elevated when the rise of royal dynasties saw marriage become an instrument of foreign policy.

This matrix of factors still obtains for marriage in African society. The institution is about much more than formalising the bio-emotional bond between two individuals, which now characterises Western practice. In most societies, it encompasses normative behaviour patterns and traits, including the wedding ceremonies and exchanges that formalise the contract. The marriage itself comes with expectations of relative permanence: shared residence, gender-based division of labour and management of resources, a sexual relationship oriented towards procreation and cooperation in child bearing and training.

While these factors, like the primacy of the nuclear family, are universal, the model based on the contract’s societal benefits has experienced significant attrition during the modern era. The wedding industry is the latest development to complicate the human dimension of marriage, and it appears to be racing out of control.

Conspicuous consumption

During the 1960s, weddings, especially the lavish high-cost version, came to be seen as effete. The contract was increasingly seen as a bond based on the relationship between two individuals. Divorce rates shot up and non-traditional unions between individuals of different backgrounds, including people of different religious, racial or social origins, proliferated. Pairing was about love. The resulting unions did not require an external religious or secular authority to legitimise it; the conventional ceremonial component was passé.

This encouraged the pursuit of innovative weddings, often held in unorthodox settings that appeal to the romantic ideal. The barefoot-on- the-beach wedding was popularised when Becks betrothed Posh in a sarong. The couple showcased several outfits, including bright violet costumes for the wedding party and a matching cowboy hat for baby Brooklyn. David Beckham later admitted that the garb made him look like “one of the guys in Dumb and Dumber” [the movie].

The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

The Beckham extravaganza came after Princess Diana’s 1981 “wedding of the century”, which made celebrity weddings fashionable. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton set a new bar for the 21st century—although, as in the case of the Diana event, most of the reported cost of $34 million was spent on security; the cost of the bride’s dress, at $434,000, was modest in comparison.

In many places, weddings have always provided a stage for conspicuous consumption. The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

Such extreme examples underscore the meteoric rise of the wedding industry across the planet. Fashionable contemporary weddings across the world now involve a full complement dressmakers, florists, reception halls, event planners, photographers, caterers, limo firms, DJs, bands, and jewellery designers. Few people can match the glass coach, the 25-foot bridal train, and the estimated 750 million television viewers of Princess Diana’s wedding, but many are willing to go into debt to finance a ceremony that is becoming the nuptial version of the arms race.

The wedding industry is flourishing across continents and cultures. In China, the $57-billion industry is registering a 7.8 per cent annual growth, but this will soon be trumped by India where the industry is expanding by 25 per cent a year. In the United Arab Emirates, the average cost of nuptials is estimated to be around $80,000. In the US, the average cost of a wedding is equivalent to a year’s salary for many service-sector employees or a year of university education.

These numbers appear to reflect relative differentials in income. The most expensive place in the US to get married is Manhattan, where the average cost is over $76,000, or five times the cost in Utah where the typical wedding expenditure is $15,257. The fact that this state is booming economically points to the influence of culture as well—which may represent the best hope for mitigating the more ominous implications accompanying the commercialisation of marriage and sexuality.

The Big African Wedding

During a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I went to a studio to get some passport pictures. There were several picture albums in the waiting area. They were actually gigantic, hardcover ledgers showcasing glamorous pictures of wedding couples, bridesmaids, best men, and other sundry wedding participants conspicuously adorned in some of the most expensively elegant finery I have ever seen. During the remainder of my visit I began to notice the proliferation of large and small wedding shops across the city.

I initially thought it was an Ethiopian thing. Wrong. Once alerted to its existence, evidence of Africa’s new wedding industry started to pop up everywhere. In Zambia there are weddings that last two weeks. The wedding industry in Kampala has seen the ten event organising companies operating in 2010 to grow to more than a hundred in 2017. Televised weddings provide revenue for Ugandan television stations that now charge 1 million shillings ($330) to broadcast lavish weddings.

Nigeria, true to form, is at the forefront of Africa’s new wedding sector. The industry that some say is fueled by Nigerians’ natural love of celebration probably owes more to their competitive nature. The CEO of one Nigerian wedding planning company explains: “People want their event to be the best. They want it to better than the next person’s so they won’t spare any expense to do whatever they need to do to get it done.”

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills. Although the currency on display under thick glass attracted the attention of Nigeria’s audacious criminal class, it usually ended up back in the bank on Monday morning. Spraying guests with dollars upped the ante in the country’s “go big or go home” stakes.

Kenya’s fast growing wedding industry has spawned hundreds of wedding planners and businesses offering everything from florists to high-end caterers and other related specialists. This service sector actually dates back to the Western infatuation with the wedding as an adventure theme, which has drawn couples from abroad to Kenya to tie the knot. The wedding-in-the-bush is a niche market that is still doing well, based on the number of Kenyan tour companies advertising diverse safari wedding packages. But it is small change compared to the new urban African wedding complex with its complement of service providers, magazines, television shows, and family brokers skilled at maximising the returns on nubile daughters.

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills.

On the one hand, the industry is a tech-savvy, Internet friendly economic sub-sector, but on the other, it is just another globalised neoliberal cash cow. At least in West Africa the industry is spawning a new fashion industry showcasing creative variations on traditional clothing. Fashionable African wedding attire has even added a few hundred boards to the 38 million and growing Pinterest wedding posts, and its pretty neat stuff. Kenya’s wedding juggernaut, in contrast, is driven by the couples’ marked preference for the Eurocentric “white” wedding.

“White” Kenyan weddings

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset. This line of critique makes Kenya’s first Big Shot wedding a bit incongruous—it was actually celebrated in Maasailand.

Sometime around the mid-1970s, the expansive Maasai Minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, Stanley Oloitiptip, threw an exceptionably exorbitant wedding for his oldest son. Stylistically, it contradicted almost everything Maasai culture stood for. It was certainly as outsized by the more modern standards of the day as the girth of the physically immense politician.

The irrepressible Oloitiptip justified the spectacle as a testament to “the fruits of Uhuru”. This explanation focused public attention on the diversion of state resources to fund the affair, a concern further compounded by the fact that the Honourable Minister had sired 46 other children.

As it turned out, there was no happy ending for the Big Man. In 1985, he suddenly found himself in prison for the misuse of public resources. Like the overpriced wedding gowns at the centre of contemporary weddings, the five normal prison uniforms sewn together to clothe him were used for only one day: he was released on bond the following morning and passed away several days later.

Although the Kenyan public has been treated to the occasional high profile wedding since then, the new big wedding phenomenon is defined by its distribution and scale. This is why some commentators applaud it as a vibrant growth industry and others hype it as symbolic of middle class prosperity—even though a large portion of newly weds don’t have the money to pay for their weddings.

The moral of the Oliotiptip story dovetails with other qualities associated with the big wedding trend. Close to a quarter of the couples opting for these bling weddings go into debt to finance them, and the majority of them regret the expenditure soon afterwards. A more disturbing statistic: the bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage.

Even so, the trend persists. One Ugandan professional stated that he has saved 50 million shillings for a big wedding. He says he only wants to have a wedding that befits his status as an educated man. If he can’t afford that, he’d rather not have a wedding at all. No wedding is now the norm for many, and no marriage at all is increasingly common. One regional study found that 50 per cent of young couples were living in free unions and another 25 per cent of women were raising children as single mothers.

Traditional communitas versus wedding bling

Weddings have long served as a vehicle for conspicuous consumption and the spread of consumer culture. The fact that both the rich and the middle classes now own fancy cars, TVs and designer handbags has raised the status-generating power of one-time social events like weddings. Wedding planners say that the industry is driven by women’s desire to be a Queen, and the center of attention albeit for one day. Men play along for reasons of status and prestige.

Traditional ceremonies were ritualised communal affairs imbued with layers of symbolism and meaning. The primary functions of many ceremonies, such as weddings, were to mark passage to a new stage of the life cycle and to foster unity within the community. The anthropologist Victor Turner’s classic study on African ritual and ceremony focused on the deep properties of these phenomena, and the universal role of liminality and communitas.

Liminality refers to the beginning or transitional stage in a process. The person at the centre of the transition is often regarded to be in a weak and dangerous or inauspicious state. Rituals based on the society’s spiritual, magical and religious traditions generate a state of communitas to insure the safe transition of the person in this liminal state.

The term communitas is associated with sharing a common experience that takes a whole community to the next level. Rites, rituals and ceremonies designed to temporarily negate differentials of rank and status create a social space based on homogeneity, equality and anonymity. This promotes a sense of group wholeness. Individuality is submerged in unity in a manner facilitating transformation. The way the spirit of a harambee fund-raising event induces you to contribute beyond your planned contribution is an example of the same.

The public ceremony is, in this sense, not an event, but part of a social process that facilitates the safe transition of the liminal individual, be it from girl to woman, boy to man, or candidate to group chief and leader. The state of communitas it engenders imbues the group with a lasting sense of unity and solidarity that allows society to function despite its internal conflicts and inequalities of wealth and status.

Turner describes how the process works in the case of the appointment of a new chief among the Ndembu of Zambia. After a period of sexual abstinence, the new candidate and is wife are housed in the specially constructed kafu, or death hut. They are dressed in rags and made to assume a submissive position. While in this state of liminality, elders revile the future leader: “Be silent! You are a mean and selfish fool, one who is bad-tempered! You do not love your fellows, you are only angry with them! Meanness and theft are all you have! Yet here we have called you and we say that you must succeed to the chieftainship.”

The couple are abused and forced to stay awake all night while commoners are invited to berate them for any misdeeds large or small. They are beaten and rubbed with special herbs. After this ordeal, the chief-to-be is instructed in his duties:

We have desired you and you only for our chief. Let your wife prepare food for the people who come here to the capital village. Do not be selfish, do not keep the chieftainship to yourself! You must laugh with the people, you must abstain from witchcraft! You must not be killing people! You must not be ungenerous to people! Today you are born as a new chief. If you were mean, and used to eat your cassava mush or your meat alone, today you are in the chieftainship. You must give up your selfish ways, you must welcome everyone, you are the chief!

The ritual results in the figurative death of the liminal candidate and his rebirth as a leader. Turner goes on to detail how many other ceremonial processes across cultures, including the coronation of Popes, display many of the same structural attributes.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions, and most cultural and religious weddings display similar dynamics to sanctify and bless the marriage contract.

In my own case, prior my own wedding, the idea of getting married was a remote and distant prospect. I was living in Lamu, and the process started as an idea suggested by close friends who told me, “Marrying is easy and since you are here you should give it a try even if just for a week.” The idea evolved into an experimental possibility that in turn led to a proposal to marry, arranged in the usual manner.

The only request from my side was that the marriage ceremony would be a small, private affair. Swahili weddings, in my view, were carnival style affairs that did not fit my style. I wanted a closed personal ceremony to go with the already exotic circumstances.

“Sure, we will do it that way if that’s what you want,” my future in-laws told me. Although I did not know it, at the time, I was totally out of my depth, in a liminal state of ignorance, weakness, naiveté, and vulnerability.

I also did not realise that the coast was home to the region’s most developed indigenous wedding industry. As the time approached, I was informed of a series of unanticipated developments: a bus arrived with furniture and other trappings; the next day another came from Mombasa with a posse of musicians, a boat arrived with guests from the islands, and so on. This build-up countered my expectations of a small intimate wedding.

A week before the actual event, people started addressing me as Bwana Harusi. Lamu’s normally shy ladies began to accost me with propositions, and several times women dragged me into their homes as I passed through the town’s narrow alleys. My “handlers” told me that as Bwana Harusi I was fair game for such mischief until the formal marriage; it was best I stay indoors. They were otherwise helpful but not very informative. Among other things, they did not explain that a proper wedding is mandatory for a girl’s first marriage, and that the arrangements were the exclusive province of the bride’s family.

Three days of robust wedding celebrations ensued. I became caught up in the spirit, and consented to options for the groom’s side, like holding the kirumbizi stick fighting dance and the all-night kesha party. My father surrogate arranged for the kirumbizi, which coincided with the district secondary school sports tournament. The presence of the archipelago’s most athletically inclined youth insured it was the most fiercely contested kirumbizi stick fighting in Lamu’s modern history. Swept away by the spirit of this communitas, I ended up splurging on food, miraa for my Somali friends, and a Bajuni msondo dance followed by what became a public party while the bride’s taarabu music echoed through the other side of time.

After sunrise I was married in the kind of simple ceremony I had originally requested, although there was still one last surprise.

I had paid the conventional dowry for that time of several thousand shillings. But when the actual moment came, I was confused when I heard the town’s most respected sheikh ask me the formulaic question: Do you agree to marry Safiya binti Mohammed Ali for the mahari of 50 Kenya shillings?

This was repeated three times. Though mystified and bewildered, I managed to utter “kabeitu, or “I agree” in Arabic. Only later did I learn that the small sum substituted for the dowry proper, often referred to as mahari ya Kiarabu, is designed to protect the family, which typically ends up spending more than the dowry on the wedding. The provision comes into effect if the marriage fails or the groom has legitimate cause for rejecting the bride and reclaims the mahari proper. The dowry proper, in any case, goes to the wife, and not her father.

In the evening I was escorted to the bride’s house where, according to the Swahili tradition of fungati, we spent the next week in the wedding suite where we were treated as royalty. We were both all so liminal at the time, although for different reasons. By the end of the week’s seclusion I was integrated into the extended family and emerged as a culturally validated member of Lamu society.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions

As individuals, my wife and I were and still are very different people from totally different backgrounds. I am not sure if our union would have survived if it began as the private affair I originally envisioned. It took a while, but I came to understand how the process of public communitas and internal family bonding contributed to the fact that forty-one years later we are still together.

There is a broader moral to this love story.

The impact of commercialised weddings

Victor Turner observes that liminality and communitas are essentially phenomena of transition. His analysis explains why many modern phenomena, from millenarian movements and the counter-cultural quest for alternative lifestyles to the rise of Nazism, borrow much of their mythology and symbolism from traditional rites de passage, either in the cultures in which they originate or in the cultures with which they are in contact. Turner documents many forms of these phenomena from once-a- generation ceremonies to the rituals of everyday life.

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear. Lela Anwar, an administrator with the coast’s Donge Charity Network, offers the following commentary on Mombasa’s changing wedding complex.

A typical wedding in Mombasa now costs more than an average citizen’s salary, yet they are getting bigger and more dramatic. The Nikkah, the nucleus of any Islamic wedding, is a straightforward and inexpensive affair because it mainly involves a recitation of wedding vows followed by attendees sharing a quick repast of coffee and haluwa in the mosque. It is also a mainly male event, complemented by a smaller gathering of female relatives and close friends in another room. Even though the nikkah is the most essential part of the wedding, the reception consumes the majority of time, financial, and human resources. The reception, known as kupamba in Swahili, is an extravagant women-only event featuring an often evening of loud music, outlandish hairdos and makeup, jewel-studded dresses, and multiple servings of fancy food and drinks. Local women view the kupamba through the lens of social class: the fancier the reception is, the more status conferred on the family. Curiously, the kupamba celebration can exert more leverage on social class than actual wealth. A family that hosts an outlandish wedding is regarded as ‘high class’ even if the wedding was funded by loans and donations from extended family and friends.

 Muslims are aware that the Prophet Muhammad recommended simple weddings yet despite the religious incentive for sticking to the sunnah traditions, the scale and costs of Swahili weddings continue to rise. This phenomenon is linked to attributed gender dynamics, and specifically to gender roles that are socially enforced in traditional Swahili societies. There are certain female social activities that are frowned upon even though it is fairly acceptable for men to go clubbing or spend long hours away from the family consuming miraa or pursuing other forms of entertainment. Swahili women who deviate from their prescribed roles are, in contrast, given negative labels and may be castigated as being promiscuous or prostitutes. Unlike men, you rarely see women spending hours with friends partaking in social activities outside the home. With almost no outlet or spaces available to women for entertainment, weddings are now the default venues where they can dress up and enjoy an evening of music and fun within a socially acceptable environment. Weddings are an outlet for self-expression; an opportunity for the traditional Swahili woman to morph into a glamour queen. They are a welcome respite from her daily, culturally prescribed cocoon.

Weddings are so important that now invitation cards are sold for as much as Ksh. 7000 by invitees unable to attend. The downside of this commercialisation is that increasingly large numbers of urban and peri-urban youth are finding it difficult to marry. This has provided an entry point for radicalisation and terrorist recruitment as two recent studies on the coast of Kenya have documented.

 The wedding industry, as discussed in the first section of this essay, in many ways contradicts the role of traditional cultural processes. Weddings as events emphasise the conspicuous expenditure of resources for the sake of prestige and competition. Instead of transforming the couples to live in harmony and contribute to the public good, bling weddings condemn many of them to an uphill struggle to survive as a pair.

More traditional wedding ceremonies, as the passage above indicates, offer Swahili women a degree of gender-based communitas. The contemporary coastal wedding, however, also reinforces structural inequalities contributing to the radicalisation of both male and female youth. Sex is a powerful and dangerous force that easily leads one into a state of liminal danger. The wedding industry taps into this for material gain. Jihadi radicals effectively exploit the negative aspect of the same social change to recruit individuals who for various economic and ideological reasons fall outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam.

The role of such factors, including constraints associated with the commercialisation of weddings, have been documented by researchers on Kenya’s coast and elsewhere. In the meantime, it turns out that a range of high profile players in the West have discovered the value of communitas and other spiritual techniques that help merge the individual “I” into the collective “We”. Advocates include the top echelon of Google and other Silicon Valley executives, some of most decorated US Navy Seals team leaders, and other copacetic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. The 2017 book, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, reports how these players are seeking out ways of replicating the ecstatic sense of unity embedded in the African rituals studied by Victor Turner and others. In the words of the authors, “This feeling tightens social bonds and ignites enduring passion—the kind that lets us come together to plan, organize, and tackle great challenges.”

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear.

For the techies, entrepreneurs and soldiers who have adopted pursuits from yoga and bio-feedback meditation to psychedelics and extreme sports, getting into this zone is about enhancing productivity and their cutting edge. It is hardly surprising that the bad guys have developed their own form of communitas to do the same. In any event, society needs more of the problem-solving passion the world’s top entrepreneurs are seeking to cultivate than the competition driven by the bling of the wedding industry—especially when it comes to some of the human surrogates now being generated by artificial intelligence technology.

The rise of the wedding industry bookends one side of a larger neoliberal trend of inequality and social polarisation; developments on the other side of the spectrum have given rise to the technologically enabled sexbot, first predicted in the original 1975 version of Stepford Wives and updated in more recent films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. One blogger summed up the implications for marriage and the family as an existential threat to humanity: “This will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”

A return to the ritually-reinforced social bonds that made the celebration of marriage a universal rite of passage is needed to sustain the family unit as the most basic human institution. Creative variations on the modern wedding may yet provide a platform for adaptive cultural innovations on this front. For example, last December, Laabied Mohammed Gurcharan of the Donge Network established a new precedent for Mombasa’s wedding scene. Instead of the usual by- invitation-only event, he shared his wedding feast with the children of the Mama Dhahabu Orphanage.

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